THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 58
They wanted to keep God for themselves
(Acts 26.21 - The Message)
Paul had appealed to Caesar and was held a prisoner by Festus, Governor of Caesarea. When King Agrippa visited Festus they had Paul brought from the prison to plead his cause before them. Paul used the opportunity to witness to the truth and made a spirited defence and testimony.
In this address to the two rulers, Paul said – as described in The Message – that the Jews had grabbed him in the Temple and tried to kill him. He gave as reason for their enmity that they wanted to keep God for themselves. In the older translations it says simply that the Jews attacked him ‘for this reason’ - i.e. that Paul was passing the good news of salvation to the Gentiles.
So there it is – plainly summed up in one terse sentence: the Jews wanted to keep God for themselves. Maybe the phrase seems an over-simplification, but it is a telling remark and goes to the nub of the problem between Jews and Christians at that time: the Jews (most of them) saw themselves as the privileged race, whereas the Christians (most of them) saw their message of salvation as equally available to Jew and Gentile.
This phrase seems to me to have much more significance than being just about the dispute two thousand years ago between Jew and Christian. I think it applies to many situations in which we find ourselves today. It is all too easy to fall into a habit of mind where we adopt a possessive attitude towards God. He becomes our God – almost our property. And, perhaps unconsciously, we shut other people out of the relationship.
Lets take the run of the mill conventional socially minded church. Lets suppose it is ‘successful’ in that it attracts a few hundred regulars to its morning services. It is a hive of activity and it has many ‘good works’ to its name. What more could you want? And yet … maybe that is a church that has some members who are really quite pleased with their performance. They see no great need for change. They see themselves as doing a good job - after all, how many churches these days are so successful both numerically and financially?
I wonder whether that church is one where some members feel that they have got the whole religion business pretty well taped? A church where they don’t really need anyone to come and tell them what they might do in addition to or instead of what they are presently doing? Maybe they want to hold their God close to themselves and just keep on doing what seems so successful. Maybe they don’t want to be disturbed from their present path. If they changed they might lose their members. Maybe they want to keep their God where he is, so that they can serve him in the well organised ways that hitherto have been so successful? They may have their evangelisation programmes and maybe some people get evangelised. What more could you want?
Or, on a personal level, take someone who has been through all sorts of battles in their life. They have had a valid experience of God, and they worship regularly. But maybe they have reached the point where they really don’t want to change in any further way. They have got it all sussed out, and they don’t see any merit in changing anything. They certainly want to keep God for themselves – he is essential to the well ordered routine of their lives. They don’t want anyone or anything to rock the boat. They are comfortable in their beliefs and in their practice of those beliefs.
So what is so wrong with not wanting things to change? If things are going well, why change anything? If it ain’t broke don’t mend it. What is so wrong with not wanting God to move away from the role we have assigned him? What is wrong with wanting to ensure that we keep God in his accustomed place? What is wrong with hanging onto what we believe and not losing faith?
To ask the question is to answer it. There is no reason why we should not try to preserve what is good about our faith and practice. What is bad, however, is when we try to box God in. What is bad is when we hold onto our version of God in the belief that our version is the complete and final understanding we will ever have of God. As soon as the balance shifts from God controlling us to us controlling God, then we are on very dangerous ground. The danger arises when we come to adopt a wrong attitude towards God – see him as somebody over whom we can exercise some control. When we fail to keep in mind that God is infinitely greater than we can ever think or imagine we have started to lose touch with reality.
So, if this danger of trying to enclose God in a form that we can comprehend and manage is something we all face at one time or another, how do we combat it? How can we adopt and keep a right attitude towards God?
The only right view of God is reached through the bible – its stories, gospels and letters. These all show us that God is infinitely greater than we can think or imagine. That the Creator is greater than the created. If we have never had that sense that God is so much greater than we are, then we have some way still to go in our understanding of the Christian God. However close and at one with us he is (of which more later), he is also always far beyond our comprehension.
The Psalmist states this very clearly: What is man that Thou are mindful of him?….
Perhaps an even more difficult task than grasping the greatness of God is to hold both these views at the same time: to see God as infinitely greater than ourselves, but also to know him as closer than a brother.
So we have to resist any tendency in ourselves to think that our God is just ‘our’ God. He is everyone’s God. He is not just for us. He is for everyone. He is not just for Christians. He is God for everyone. He does not just hear our prayers; he hears everyone’s prayers. The Christian message of grace goes out not to an abandoned world, but to a world already filled with the presence of the Creator. There is a greatness about God that never ceases to amaze. That greatness sees all his children as loveable and deserving of his help and support and guidance.
We have said that we can, almost unconsciously, get into a wrong relationship with God – become too familiar, too assertive, to proprietorial. When we do that we are trying to possess or control God, which is a slow death for our religious experience because God will never allow himself to be ‘owned’ in that way. He slowly withdraws from us until, one morning, we wake up to the fact that we are out of communion with him. God insists that in any relationship with us he is always the Master, always in charge, always the initiator. In his graciousness he allows us not only to know him but also to co-create with him at times. That is one of the highest and most fulfilling roles we can ever have. But always he is in overall control. He will not let us get beyond our station. Being ‘in Christ’ does not mean we bow any the less before our Creator God.
The Jews at the time of Christ faced this problem. For centuries they had known that they were the special nation of God’s choice – a nation with which God had made a covenant. They had obeyed and they had disobeyed – but always they tried to keep on the right basis with him as their God. They praised and worshipped in their Temple. They sacrificed and offered burnt offerings. They confessed their sin and they tried to follow the Torah – the Law.
The trouble was that they became obsessed with their role as special nation of God’s choice. They became so obsessed that, when the Messiah came, they could not recognise him. They could not let go of the role they thought they had – as special nation – and so missed their destiny of welcoming the Messiah who had been prophesied for them for so long.
They wanted to keep God for themselves – they did not want to share him with the Gentiles. For them the Gentiles were rejects. Gentiles played no part in the future the Jews saw for themselves, though at some dim and distant future time they might be brought into the Jewish fold. The Jews could not open their minds to see that they needed to change direction now. Being hooked on preserving the Law and the practices of past tradition, they missed the one chance they had to move out of the lengthy preparation phase and into the glorious time of fulfilment.
So we have good cause to look at ourselves. If the Jews – the chosen nation of God - a nation prepared over many centuries for the coming of their Messiah - missed their opportunity to grow into the role prepared for them (of welcoming the Messiah and helping establish his kingdom on earth), then how easy it would be for us today to miss the opportunities that God is offering us in this day and age.
In what way might we be misguided enough to miss our way? There are many, but here are a few: we might be so wrapped up in our various churches that we miss the point of what any church is for. We might become so proud of our church or our performance in our church that we lose sight of the majesty and greatness of God, and that it is all of him and not of us at all.
Or we might be so wrapped up in our way of doing things that we forget that it is Gods work, not ours. And that he may wish to change direction at any time. Churches are born and churches die. It is God we must look to and not the work of our own hands.
Or we might have so much self-esteem invested in the Christian work we are doing that we fail to see that we have taken over and started to shut God out of it. God help us, we might even want to shut other Christians out of it, because it is ‘our’ belief, ‘our’ church, ‘our’ work. We might for example say that they are not good enough to be alongside us. Or we might say that we don’t like their take on Christian morality. Or we might say we just don’t agree with them. We might even try to shut them out of our churches. Can you imagine that? Christian so at odds with other Christians that they shut each other out!
God’s love for the people he has created is infinite. It doesn’t depend on which theory of the Atonement we support. Nor on our sexual orientation, nor on our ritual or our view of the bible. It is immense love, flowing free. It is all sheer grace from the God who is sheer love. We might try to draw a circle and try to hold our God inside it, but God has already drawn a circle that takes in the whole universe and includes every last man and woman and child.
It is our very great privilege to be called to follow Jesus and as we learn to live sacrificially, like him, so we can invite all to the Saviour’s feast. As we go into the streets to invite people to the feast we shall rub shoulders with all sorts of Christians. Don’t look too closely at them – have regard to yourself. Are you a mirror image of Jesus? All Christians are sent out together into the streets and the lanes and the back alleys and we are told to invite all to come to Christ’s feast. One beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. Give thanks to God!